I. THEFT (vers. 1-5). The illustrations in the law relate to thefts of cattle. But the principles embodied apply to thefts generally (cf. ver. 7). Note -
1. The law which punishes the theft, protects the thief's life. It refuses, indeed, to be responsible for him in the event of his being smitten in the night-time, while engaged in the act of housebreaking (ver. 2) - large rights of self-defence being in this case necessary for the protection of the community. The thief might be killed under a misapprehension of his purpose; or by a blow struck at random in the darkness, and under the influence of panic; or in justifiable self-defence, in a scuffle arising from the attempt to detain him. In other circumstances, the law will not allow the thief's life to be taken (ver. 3). All the ends of justice are served by his being compelled to make restitution. Blood is not to be spilt needlessly. The killing of a thief after sunrise is to be dealt with as murder. We infer from this that theft ought not to be made a capital offence. English law, at the beginning of this century, was, in this respect, far behind the law of Moses.
2. Theft is to be dealt with on the principle of restitution.
(1) It calls for more than simple restitution. At most the restitution of the simple equivalent brings matters back to the position in which they were before the criminal act was committed. That position ought never to have been disturbed; and punishment is still due to the wrongdoer for having disturbed it. Hence the law that if the stolen animal is found in the thief's hand alive, he shall restore double (ver. 4); if he has gone the length of killing or selling it, he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep (ver. 1).
(2) Penalty is proportioned to offence. Both as respects the value of the things stolen, and as respects the lengths to which criminality has proceeded.
3. If direct restitution is impossible, the thief shall be compelled to make restitution by his labour - "He shall be sold for his theft" (ver. 3). It would be an improvement in the administration of justice if this principle were more frequently acted on. The imprisoned thief might be made to work out an equivalent for his theft; and this, in addition to the hardships of his imprisonment, might be accepted as legal restitution.
II. DAMAGE (vers. 5, 6). The damage done, in the one case to a field or vineyard, by allowing a beast to stray into it, and feed upon the produce; in the other, by setting fire to thorn hedges, and injuring the corn-stacks, or standing corn, is supposed to be unintentional. Yet, as arising from preventible causes - from carelessness and neglect - the owner of the beast, or the person who kindled the fire, is held responsible. He must make good the damage from the best of his own possessions. We are held fully responsible for the consequences of neglect (cf. Hebrews 2:3).
III. DISHONEST RETENTION OF PROPERTY (vers. 7-14). Cases of this kind involved judicial investigation.
1. If the charge of dishonest retention was made out, the fraudulent party was to restore double (ver. 9).
2. If an ox, ass, sheep, or any beast, entrusted. to another to keep, died, was hurt, or was driven away, "no man seeing it," the person responsible for its safety could clear himself by an oath from the suspicion of having unlawfully "put his hand" to it (ver. 11). In this case, he was not required to make good the loss.
3. If, however, the animal was stolen from his premises, under circumstances which implied a want of proper care, he was required to make restitution (ver. 12).
4. If the animal was alleged to have been torn to pieces, the trustee was required to prove this by producing the mangled remains (ver. 13).
IV. Loss OF WHAT IS BORROWED (vers. 14, 15).
1. If the owner is not with his property, the borrower is bound to make good loss by injury or death.
2. If the owner is with it, the borrower is not held responsible.
3. If the article or beast be lent on hire, the hire is regarded as covering the risk. - J.O.
If a man shall deliver unto his neighbour money or stuff to keep.1. God's law provides strictly to keep men faithful to their trusts by men.
2. Theft may abuse and frustrate the trust of the most faithful men.
3. Such theft discovered is punished with double restitution by God.
4. In theft undiscovered and upon suspicion, trustees are bound to clear themselves by oath.
5. A right oath as it terminates upon God, so ought in some cases to be taken before magistrates (ver. 8).
6. In doubtful cases about trust, civil powers are enabled to try men, and judge by oath.
7. The falsifier of trust convicted must restore double (ver. 9).
8. Living stuff trusted to any and dying, none knowing how, the trustee's oath must clear him (vers. 10, 11).
9. Living goods trusted to keeping upon consideration if stolen, must be made good by the keeper (ver. 12).
10. No law binds men to restore what Providence takes away from men by wild beasts (ver. 13).
(G. Hughes, B. D.)
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